Disney Animal Kingdom Avatarland in Context

Written by Kevin Yee. Posted in Features

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Published on October 15, 2013 at 3:00 am with 81 Comments

The Avatarland project at Disney’s Animal Kingdom got a sudden and unexpected boost Friday night (United States’ time) when details and concept art were unveiled at the D23 Expo taking place in Tokyo, several time zones away. Some Disney fans were happy; others remained uninterested. But when you put the Avatar project into proper perspective of the Walt Disney World storyline, it forms a more complete picture of the Disney response to Potter. At the end of the day, this expansion (plus the other two in nearby parks) is really about Potter.

The scale and scope of the Avatar project, as unveiled, wowed some members of the Disney fan community, including some who previously were against the entire idea of this expansion, but the timing raised questions if Disney was attempting to “bury” the story at the very end of the U.S. news cycle. Midnight on a Friday night is historically when releases come out that want to attract little notice, so people wondered if this was intentional. Surely the American market is huge, and this *is* an American park getting the expansion, so it is a little curious to release it “overnight” for us. Are they ashamed? Did they recognize that fans have been less than excited for Avatar, and didn’t want to risk overhyping something that some would end up not liking? (this exact scenario now plagues SeaWorld with its Antarctica expansion)

The announcement called for a few things for sure: a boat ride (the artwork shows it to be nighttime) and a Soarin’-type ride where we swoop around the planet with the flying dragon-like banshees. There was no merchandise location or restaurant announced at this time, but they’ve been mentioned in earlier releases and they are logical additions anyway. Construction starts in 2013 (in other words, soon!) in the Camp Minnie-Mickey area (which will have to close in 2014), and is slated to take up to five years to complete. They were a bit unspecific about actual time frames.

DAK will also be getting a nighttime lagoon show near Everest, something I heard independent rumors about more than a month ago. The nighttime entertainment will also include a stationary parade of sorts near the Tree of Life, and projections on the tree itself (this story was broken a few months ago, though I didn’t know about that scoop until recently). And there’s going to be a nighttime safari now. Add it all up, and you’ve got a full slew of evening entertainment. DAK is going to do its darndest to finally shed that “half day park” reputation which has dogged it since the beginning.

Here is the concept art released at the DisneyParks blog:





And here is a video from James Cameron and Imagineer Joe Rohde, released a day later:

It can be instructive to take those concept art images, and zoom in a bit on them. Shall we see what we can see? There might be hints about the land here.

Is that a thanator? (http://james-camerons-avatar.wikia.com/wiki/Thanator)

Is that a thanator on the boat ride? (http://james-camerons-avatar.wikia.com/wiki/Thanator)

Light levels in this picture have been adjusted to show more of the boat.

Light levels in this picture have been adjusted to show more of the boat.

Herds of animals, limitless waterfalls (since they are digitally created)... this could be impressive!

Herds of animals, limitless waterfalls (since they are digitally created)… this could be impressive in the Soarin’ type ride! Does that T-shirt say “AVTR”?

A happy family in the foreground, and a couple nuzzling in the background!

A happy family in the foreground, and a couple nuzzling in the background!

The rock arches in the distance are likely to be forced perspective, I'd guess.

The rock arches in the distance are likely to be forced perspective, I’d guess.

A vine-covered trailer (like the one at the end of the movie)

A vine-covered trailer (like the one at the end of the movie)

Expect a lot of plants. Is that an egg/embryo in the background?

Expect a lot of plants. Is that an egg/embryo in the background?

I spy a distant (overrun?) structure to the left.

I spy a distant (overrun?) structure to the left.

A ruined vehicle.

A ruined vehicle.

The model shows a lot of plants, but no structures (at least from this angle)

The model shows a lot of plants, but no structures (at least from this angle)


On the one hand, it’s not a huge stretch to say that the Avatar expansion is a response to the wildly successful Harry Potter expansions up the road at Universal. Many fans make the point that Avatar isn’t enough.

But if you think about the storyline the Disney CEO has to craft to HIS audience (he only reports to one place: the Board of Directors), Avatar is only a part of the puzzle. Iger will get to tell the board that while Potter is certainly drawing in tourists and new visitors, Disney isn’t standing still. They added a big expansion in the form of New Fantasyland (which will appeal especially to those families with young girls) and now is throwing hundreds of millions into this DAK expansion based on one of the most profitable movies of all time. It seems a sure win for the Board of Directors, especially when you consider the upcoming announcements on Star Wars.

Once Disney also announces the changes at DHS (part makeover, part expansion) into a fully-themed Star Wars land, Iger will be able to say that three of its four parks are adding Potter-sized additions, and it will be easier to craft a narrative that Disney is responding in kind. Disney isn’t reacting with one giant answer, but rather with several “medium sized” ones.

This strategy is not without risks. Foremost among them is the possibility that local executives, seeking to cut capital costs and thus secure a personal bonus that year, might trim expenses on these additions. In a perverse way, having a LOT of expansions could work against Disney if it starts to think (internally) that there is so much going on, a little trimming won’t be noticed by the Guests. I heard one worrying whisper that the planned Star Wars expansion might be facing some cuts even before being announced to the public, though this sort of thing is actually somewhat routine in the Blue Sky phase. You dream it, you budget it… and then you get to re-dream a different version!

Returning to the subject at hand, the Avatar plans may make some fans very happy (let’s not forget the hordes of online people – not necessarily Disney fans – pleading for a way to “visit Pandora” when the movie first came out). The plans may underwhelm others. Personally, I remain encouraged, as I have been all along. The theme offers a rich and complex canvas onto which the Imagineers can paint experiences and portray exotic locales. This is their bread and butter.

Of course, at the end of the day I believe it doesn’t matter which Intellectual Property (IP) you start with. What matters is the finished product. A poor Star Wars experience (which we arguably have now, with Ewok facades rather than fully-realized environments) might have a great IP, but a poor execution. Meanwhile, both Pirates and Mansion flourished for decades with no movie IP attachment; they were just invented for the parks. And they did great – largely because of execution.

So what do you think? Let us know in the comments what your impression is of Avatarland. Did the concept art change your opinion at all?

Swan and Dolphin Food & Wine Classic is This Weekend

The OTHER food and wine festival on the Walt Disney World property (hosted by Swan/Dolphin) is a single-weekend event, and it’s a hard-ticket ($80) you have to buy as admission. But once in, you get unlimited food and drinks–and these are some high-quality wines I would normally not think to try, or perhaps not want to buy if I’m in a money-saving mood. Translation: you can eat and drink extremely well here. I’ve been very happy to pay the full price for this event in the past, and always felt I got my money’s worth.

Your $80 is much cheaper than the Disney premier dining event (which is $145 this weekend). I’ve talked with folks who have attended both and say the Swan/Dolphin event is of higher quality, too, despite being less expensive!

Vacation Homes – Who’d Have Thunk It?

I moved to Central Florida in 2004, and have had little need of hotels or other lodging in the area since. I’ve never given more than a cursory thought to the idea of vacation homes. Why rent a full-sized house when you can get a hotel room that is cleaned daily by a maid? It seemed like more trouble than it was worth. I know it will come with a kitchen, but if cooking is your thing, shouldn’t you just stay home?

All that changed last week, when I had occasion to rent such a house for a birthday party. I was impressed across the board. Well, almost across the board. The complex of rental homes hides behind a security phalanx notably not only for its heavy-handedness, but also for its almost impressive slowness. But apart from security, I couldn’t be happier with all elements of the experience. Here are a few particulars:


  • Cost: we paid about $140/night for a five-bedroom house (which also had five bathrooms). If you are going on vacation with a large family or group of families, the cost savings are astronomical to stay here versus a hotel. There ARE extra one-time fees like cleaning fees ($100) or pool heating ($50), but even with all that factored in, it’s much cheaper than a hotel. 
  • Location: Our house was in Windsor Hills, a community a few hundred yards from US-192 at the VERY edge of Disney property.
  • Pool. I grew up with a backyard pool in California, but even I could not believe the relaxation element of your own pool deep in the night, or even first thing in the morning.
  • Convenient check in / check out. We reserved online, we picked up keys after hours, and we returned the contract via drop box. It all happened on our time frame, and we never had to speak to anyone. Simple; no fuss.


We happened to use Palm Tree Vacation Homes (http://www.closesttodisney.com/), which was fine for our needs, and I would use them again. I can’t speak for ALL the vacation home operators in the area. But I can say that my eyes were opened by this experience.

Has anyone stayed in a vacation home in Orlando before? Feel free to share your experience in the comments.

About Kevin Yee

Kevin Yee is an author and blogger writing about travel, tourism, and theme parks in Central Florida. He is a founding member of MiceAge and has written numerous books about Disney parks (see http://bit.ly/kevinyee).

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  • I’ve got mixed feelings about Avatar Land. On the one hand, it’s a property that I’m not very excited about. While the movie had a lot of beautiful gee-wiz visuals, it wasn’t great storytelling and won’t be considered a classic. So, why choose it for an entire Disney land? On the other hand, the ride concepts and area entertainment they have planned is exciting. They’ve come up with a slate of attractions which will absolutely draw people in and appeal to a wide demographic. Where Cars Land has just one E-Ticket and two tiny flat rides, Pandora will have multiple big draws and a lush environment.

    The reason they are working so hard to add night time activities to Animal Kingdom is that Pandora will be at its most beautiful at night. There will be a bio-luminescence to the plants and decor which promises to be stunning. As much as we all love to complain about Avatar, I have no doubt that they are going to do this one right. After all, they have James Cameron to appease. . . which ain’t easy folks!!!

    There’s a whole bunch of big projects coming to WDW in the 3 to 10 year range: Monsters Inc, Cars Land (possibly canceled), Star Wars land and a potential large Epcot revitalization. The staleness that we feel now is finally about to break. And it couldn’t come soon enough.

    • chesirecat

      It’s a good point about two E-Tickets, and a C Ticket walk-through.

      I think that Soarin’ over Pandora will be good if they adjust the ride vehicles so that you’re “perched” on top of a banshee or whatever flying animal it is supposed to be, other wise it is just Soarin’ playing Avatar. This might be hard to do because there might be fear of slipping off said beast, so maybe a gigantic flying creature with a “basket” for a row of guests? Soarin’ is popular at Epcot, but after a while, guests might get tired of the same ride system, even though Soarin’ over Pandora will have great enhanced movements.

      If the Pandora boat ride uses new tech developed for next gen Disney boat rides, then I think this will be a big draw.

      Some guests might be disappointed as Avatar’s appeal was a lot about watching the military folks face off against the blue people. It was a film will relied in part on action sequences, like Star Wars . . . Avatarland looks to be much more sedate.

    • LoveStallion

      Can I just use this moment to lament the execution of Luigi’s Flying Tires? I give it five more years before they replace it.

  • rlub

    I just don’t understand why they can’t build a land around the Explorers Club (Phantom Manor, the non-Twilight Zone TOT). It seems to me you can lower expectations and therefore wow the unsuspecting public, work with a moderately higher budget since you don’t have to pay for an IP and set something up in the vein of Haunted Mansion/Pirates– classic Disney. I know it may seem a bit “old fashioned” and wouldn’t initially seem to be a draw to the masses (re: non-Disney geeks), but I think it’s a great opportunity for the Disney creative minds AND the corporate office to show off their stuff when starting from scratch.

    • Timekeeper

      @Rlub, it’s Mystic Manor, not Phantom Manor.

      But aside from that, I wished Disney just did the Beastly Kingdome and built it as the first place prize, but I guess this new land is just a second-place prize (a very pretty second-place prize, but still not what most people were winning for.) I’ll wait and read the guest reactions come 2018/2019.


      • BradyNBradleysMom

        @Timekeeper — Perhaps Riub was talking about “Phantom Manor” at Disneyland Paris. The danger in playing “corrector of what other people meant to say” is that maybe they said what they meant to say. If you notice, Riub does talk about Haunted Mansion a little later in his remarks.

      • rlub

        Thanks for the correction (and thanks for the defense Brady ;-) ). I did mean Mystic Manor as I was referring to creating a land based on the Explorers Club that has been used so effectively thus far in Phantom Manor.

        The point I had hoped to make was that it is time for a Disney theme park land/area to be originated within the theme park. Indeed a novel idea these days…

      • rlub

        Ugh. “that has been used so effectively thus far in MYSTIC Manor.” That’s what above should say.

  • Mousecat

    Good analysis (as usual). As you know, Tom Staggs did add that the AK project should open in early 2017. Perfect timing as his hopes to be the CEO at the ribbon cutting.

    I am actually excited by a highly immersive E Ticket boat ride. That is something Disney does really well and they have not done a big blockbuster like that since Sinbad in Tokyo.


  • jcruise86

    Thanks, Kevin!

    “Slated to take UP TO FIVE YEARS to complete”?

    So Maybe we’ll visit WDW around 2019,
    when the new thing crowds have gotten a little bit smaller.

    Or maybe we’ll just wait till 2021 for the 50th anniversary
    when WDW will hopefully clean up its act as Disneyland did for its 50th.

    • BradyNBradleysMom

      It’s your loss if you wait that long to visit. You’re hurting yourself, not Disney.

      • StevenW

        Not everyone can afford a trip. You now have 5 years to save.

      • jcruise86

        Except that Disneyland is close, and there are national parks, skiing, Washington, D.C., Disney cruises, and other countries.

      • CaptainAction

        Wait until WDW earns your money again.

        Disneyland is earning our money but WDW…yeah, it may be 2021.

        I haven’t been since New Fantasyland opened. The wife and I spent about 30 minutes trying to find something worthy of an area called New Fantasyland and we gave up. The forced perspective execution is flat out embarrrassing for WDW.

        I am starting to miss Pirates, Peter Pan, and Haunted Mansion but that’s about all. We still have annual passes to the waterparks which came with Disneyquest so we just add that to our Universal vacations.

  • thebear

    I have not seen the movie but this news about AK is great to hear. AK is such a well done park (except Dinoland). Adding more to do and making it a park you can visit at night can only be positive. I have never spent much time in Camp Minnie/Mickey, even when my kids were young. I’m looking forward to watching this new area progress over the next few years!

  • martinjbell1986

    Lots of good things are going to happen with this expansion. First is that Animal Kingdom will be an all day park. No-one likes having te park close at 5 except for maybe cast members. Second is that once the other E-tickets are up and running I bet they fix Disco Yeti. A nighttime show will be great too if it’s aywhere near the quality of World of Color

  • Anaheimhomeboy

    I think the reason they announced this in Japan on a weekend had to do with the stock price. The questions investors want to know when something like this is announced is, what does it cost and when will we see the return on the investment? Since this is pretty much guaranteed to be at least a billion that’s a huge number to swallow. The second thing is that this extension of the park will not be complete until 2017. That’s 4 years of investment with little to no return coming in during that time. That’s a long time to tell your investors that something is going to be worth it. Iger will be out as president and CEO by then. So if it’s a waist someone else will have to take the blame.

    I’m actually looking forward to it. Should be very nice

  • BornOnTheMatterhrn

    Yee is completely spaced out (once again) with his crazy notion that Disney attempted to “bury” the Avatar news story “overnight” on Friday. #clueless #wannabejournalist

    Jim Hill has the real, accurate story here: http://bit.ly/17sfqy8

  • Orlando71

    As long as i keep telling myself that i’m visiting Pandora that really has nothing to do with giant blue people, i’m really excited for this. I think the people complaining will be shut up when it comes to fruition on how good of a land this actually is. Who cares if it is Avatar? Pretend its Pandora, i mean who can not look at that concept art and not get excited?

  • AaroniusPolonius

    As I said in the forums, I’m sure that they presented this in Japan to sell the Oriental Land Company on either the land itself or on the ride tech behind the rides.

    I’m sure that the Avatar Boat Ride is the Shanghai Castle Boat Ride in different drag. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Floating Mountain Mountain features either a walk-through “wow” moment or if they don’t snake the queue line through the mountain itself for the “wow.” (Again, much like the Shanghai Castle experience.)

    To that end, I suspect most of the Avatar Boat ride to be indoors, and thus in permanent bioluminescent “night.” For the sake of ecology, I hope they use actual trees and plants during the actual days and nights.

    I don’t think that the Banshee ride will be a Soarin’ clone, however. I suspect it will be a re-use of whatever they are using at the Hong Kong park for the Iron Man ride. (Again, selling the tech to the OLC for Tokyo.)

    With regards to the re-theme of the tech, one wonders when WDW will get their version of the Shanghai Tron Coaster (the tech, not the theme, which we now have at Test Track,) their version of Mystic Manor (which I’m assuming is what’s powering the Ratatouille ride in Paris and is an upgraded version of Tokyo’s Honey Hunt…I’m kind of hoping they use it to create a new Figment Imagination attraction, personally,) and whatever else they’re developing for Shanghai and/or elsewhere to be redressed and dropped into WDW.

    With regards to the timing of the opening, I understand that they are capitalizing on the franchise, and opening it up around the moment when Avatar II, III and IV roll out into the box office (just as I understand that they are timing the Seven Dwarves Coaster to open around Potter II over at Universal, and the Star Wars Lands in time for the sequel launches at the movies) but I almost think that this strategy is biting them a little in the realm of public perception.

    On the one hand, it’s viewed as highly cynical (it is,) and on the other, you have a competitor that’s really pushing themselves forward via the release of new rides and attractions, so these long developmental delays do nothing for Disney, especially considering that they just came out of a decade long coma with regards to infrastructure development. I respect that some of this has to do with the IPs (in that they might want to introduce new characters into the lands based on movies yet to be released,) but it’s not doing them any favors, considering their former “sleeping giant” status.

    Regarding the Avatar franchise: I think it’s a fine property. I think that Cameron’s proven himself, again and again, to deliver the goods, so to speak, and I suspect that he, Fox and Disney are going to spend a bleep-ton on money on the sequels, the marketing and the theme park attractions to create a lasting franchise. Avatar made nearly 2.8 billion dollars worldwide, so it’s not exactly a ‘flash-in-the-pan.’ (And damn! What a hot flash!) Considering WDW’s focus on international audiences (where more than 2 billion of the dollars were made,) as well as domestic audience success (the 750 million plus,) it seems like a wise IP to develop.

    To put this into context, if the films do merely half as well at the box office, they’ll rake in around 7 billion dollars. If they do as well or better, they’ll gross more than 11 billion. Even if they flop-hit and merely make a profit, a whole lot of eyes will fall upon Avatar movies.

  • indyjones

    Am I the only one who thinks simulator style rides have had their day and are done. Sure, Star Tours 2 is fun, but how about doing something new, like a Spiderman style ride vehicle or something. To me the “simulator” style ride (Soarin’, Star Tours) is kind of “the easy way out” and just does nothing for me. I figured Ironman was going to be this style ride too (as it appears that it is) and was disappointed.

    • jcruise86

      No, you’re not alone. And while Carsland is great in California, there is always Disney’s love (over the last 12 years, really since Pressler/Eisner made the MSE Parade “glow away FOREVER!”) of cheaping out. The surprisingly boring Little Mermaid rides don’t make me optimistic about the look of Avatarland or for Paris’ Ratatouille.

      I think this land would be cooler if it were going up at Universal Orlando. Also it’d open a year sooner.

  • Golden

    I am hopeful on Avatar Land, as I have been since word first came of it. Whatever else you can say about the movie, one thing you can say is that it creates an immersive and beautiful world environment, and I’ve always felt that if Disney can do that world justice that Avatarland (should just be called Pandora, really) will be a big success and a really great place to spend time – especially at night.

    Ultimately the quality of the E-tickets is also very important, probably even more important than the feel of the land. But I just don’t think there is any real way to judge how good those will be until much closer to the time. Regardless of whether or not their individual mechanics are ‘new’, it’s really the quality and not the novelty that will determine how enjoyed they are.

  • SxcyMike

    So much complaining about nothing. The train ride sucks, it’s not going to be as good as HP, didn’t like the movie etc. Everything WON’T be perfect I.e A thoughtless Simpson section with a bar (MOE’s) that only sells beer with another bar adjacent for alcohol. I love both UNV and DSNY and both company’s would be complete morouns to entertain the notion that they can please everyone. I know plenty of people that thought HP land was a complete yawn (the land is small, the ride jerks to much, the movie was a bore). Some attractions are built for a specific audience. Not everyone once to meet and greet the princesses and not everyone likes rollercoasters. If it’s a hit congrats, if it flops it flops. Personally UNV has nothing there to keep you pass six o’clock, the Pandora e experience at night will be exciting. Didn’t know people had such a personal stake in the company. When was the last time you were invited to the board meetings?

    • CaptainAction

      The folks on this website are FAR more creative than anyone on the board meetings at Disney representing WDW, today.

  • Amy VandenBoogert

    I have some friends in the UK who have a vacation home in Haines City (about 8 miles off I-4 and maybe 20 minutes from WDW). I’ve been to the house a couple times and it’s really nice (4 bedrooms/bathrooms, pool, game room…). I was quite impressed. Definitely an option to look into if you’re traveling with a group as it can be way cheaper than a hotel.

    As for Avatarland…. While the concept art looks nice, I really just have no interest in it. Give me a fully-realized Star Wars land at DHS and then we’ll talk.

  • solarnole

    I personally think the Avatar 3D ride is going to be a huge miss for Disney like Mission Space.

    The thrill seekers are bored by it and the gentle boat ride people get sick and never ride it again.

    The movies get old quick too. Unless its timeless and shows no age like Captain EO or Disney shows no shame in keeping it

    • CaptainAction

      Yes, and if they cheap out on the execution of Pandora like they did on New Fantasyland?

      Whew! Worst forced perspective ever used by Disney. you could ignore the smallish buildings at Big Thunder but even 2 year olds will have a hard time trying to pretend that those little dollhouses are real castles and homes. It’s like Storybook Land Canal homes escaped there area where everything is suppossed to be miniaturized and planted themselves around lifesize fake rocks 3 feet above guests heads!

      There are over 70 guest comments now because there is just such a lack of enthusiasm for Avatar. A lot of folks saw it once and thought’ “Cool” and then it just became a pretty unexciting memory. One of the most uncreative stories ever copied and done much better SEVERAL times before.

      Add to this over 5 years in the making.

      This ain’t your father’s or grandfather’s Disney any more, is it?